Physical activity for children with disability

Empowering children with disabilities to engage in physical activity can foster:

  • self-confidence
  • growth and development development
  • overall wellbeing.

Regardless of your child’s physical or intellectual abilities, being active can offer more than just physical benefits. It can:

  • create opportunities for family and community bonding
  • promote inclusion
  • develop essential life skills
  • help recognise the potential to live a fulfilling and active life. 

Did you know?

 It is estimated that 1 in 10 school-aged children in Australia have a disability and 1 in 18 children have a severe or profound disability.

Finding what works for your child to keep them moving and having fun will not only show why physical activity is so important, but it can also help them navigate life and assist their day-to-day movement and interactions.

Being physically active is important for every person to maintain good health. Children with a disability benefit from the same physical, mental and social outcomes from participating in organised sports and physical activity opportunities. 

Physical activity recommendations

The Australian physical activity recommendations for a child with a disability are the same as those of all Australian children. These recommendations are called the Australian 24-hour movement guidelines and provide age-based recommendations. See the parent brochures linked below or click on your child's age for the recommendations:

Infants (under 12 months)

Being physically active several times a day in a variety of ways, including supervised interactive floor‑based play, including crawling; more is better.

For those not yet mobile, this includes at least 30 minutes of tummy time, which includes reaching and grasping, pushing and pulling, spread throughout the day while awake.

Toddlers (1-2 years)

At least 180 minutes spent in a variety of physical activities, including energetic play, spread throughout the day; more is better.

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

At least 180 minutes spent in a variety of physical activities, of which at least 60 minutes is energetic play, spread throughout the day; more is better.

Children and young people (5-17 years)

Children and young people should aim for at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, involving mainly aerobic activities.

They should incorporate strengthening activities on at least three days in the week, for example, climbing, hopping, jumping and running.

For information on people aged 18-64 see the Department of Health website. 

Giving your child confidence in movement patterns

Children with a disability may often have a higher need for support or assistance when completing tasks, including physical movement patterns. This shouldn’t mean the activity is never introduced. 

When helping your child with their movement patterns, keep in mind the following advice: 

New skills take time

Be patient. Aim to repeat a skill or movement pattern a few times. If your child isn’t responding to the new skill, leave it and try again another day. When participating in physical activity or learning a new movement pattern, your child will benefit from:

  • repetition
  • structure
  • familiarity.

Sometimes, it can be hard to see progress in the short term. However, in the long run, it can be rewarding to observe the significant improvements that your child has made in their motor skills by being patient and consistent.

Challenge your own perception of your child's disability

Your child will continue to grow and develop in their own unique way. If there are certain things that they are currently unable to do, it's important to appropriately challenge those limitations and assumptions. Perhaps they would enjoy a certain activity or benefit from trying something new. Talk to your child's doctor to see what may be appropriate for them.

Remember, you are your child's champion, and they rely on you to guide them through life.

Find a routine that works

Establishing a consistent routine that works for your child can help develop healthy habits. Find what works for your child and your family. This might be a certain time of the day, such as directly after school, or getting active in a particular area, such as the local park. Having a routine will help provide your child with structure, familiarity and some predictability in their lives.

While it may be challenging to introduce a new activity, the outcome will be rewarding once you get past the initial few days.

Prepare and introduce early

The more notice you give your child about a movement activity, the more likely they will comprehend and respect that time. Having multiple check-ins is also helpful. Saying things like 

  • “tomorrow we will be going on a small bushwalk near the local park" 
  • when you wake up - “we’re going to eat our breakfast, get ready and leave for our bushwalk in 1 hour”
  • “15 minutes until we are ready to leave”
  • “5 minutes until we are ready to leave”.

Displaying pictures on the fridge or pinboard may be helpful for some children so they can visually see their day.

Praise effort rather than skill

Children enjoy and benefit from receiving attention and feedback after completing a task or physical activity. Rather than focusing on the outcome or aiming for perfection, it's important to acknowledge the effort the child puts into practicing and completing the activity. This approach can help children develop a growth mindset, where they understand that results can be achieved through hard work and practice.

Work closely with a health professional

There are many health professionals that are trained in your child's disability and moveme. They will understand how to modify physical activity to your child's abilities. Book your child in to see an occupational therapist or physiotherapist.

Modifying physical movement to suit your child’s ability

Movement patterns can be challenging at the best of times but understanding how to modify things to suit your child best will have a significant impact on their growth and development. Your child will be able to complete movements they are capable of achieving and you can have peace of mind that they are doing them safely. 

Modifications to movement patterns can be made either by progressing or regressing the movement:

  • progression involves making the movement more difficult to match a child's increasing ability
  • regression involves making the movement easier to match a child's reduced ability.

Like any child, your child is unique in their personality, their interests and their capabilities. Allowing your child some creative freedom to modify the movement based on their capabilities and skill level will allow for more enjoyment, engagement and progression. 

Example: Push Up

A regular push-up may be on the toes and chest to the ground, but not everyone is capable of this movement straight away. A regression of a push-up can be any of the following: 

  • dropping to the knees to add less weight to the shoulders and chest 
  • reducing the range of motion by not dropping the chest down so far 
  • using the couch or a wall to complete push-ups to shift some of the weight to the lower body.

See the CHANGE IT Principle for more information on how to modify sports to encourage more involvement and active play for your child.

Exercise videos

Sport NSW launched the Active abilities series to create workout sessions for people with disabilities. It features Australian representative athletes from across the physical, sensory and intellectual disability spectrum. It includes videos for the following disabilities:

  • blind or low vision
  • deaf or hard of hearing
  • autism
  • down syndrome
  • acquired brain injury
  • cerebral palsy
  • quadriplegia and paraplegia.

See an introduction to the series below.

Special Olympics

Special Olympics has produced a Fit5 Fitness Series Workout which gives exercise ideas on:

  • strength
  • flexibility
  • endurance
  • balance.

Skills progress in difficulty from level 1 to level 5.

Last updated Monday 6th May 2024